My Lords, my noble friend Lady Kidron has introduced a debate that is not just timely but urgent. It is different from earlier debates and discussions we have had, which focused largely on social media issues—although I know there has been a great deal of discussion of social media today—and that is not something one can take lightly. The wanton or malicious uses of digital technologies, particularly social media, can spread content that harms other individuals. The list is very long—cyberbullying, fraud, grooming, trolling, extreme pornography and endless sorts of breaches of privacy and confidentiality.
However, today I am going to focus not on harms that individuals may do to other individuals using these technologies but on ways in which digital technologies may spread content that harms public culture, and thereby civic and civilised life—and, ultimately, democracy itself.
I have time to mention only a few examples. First, there is the harm to electoral process and public debate. In this country we regulate expenditure on advertising by political parties during elections quite closely, but advertising by others and disseminating content that is not labelled as a political advertisement—whether by individuals, corporations or foreign states—is unregulated. This used not to be a problem. Such advertising was unlikely, it was costly and it could not effectively be provided from afar—but this has changed. Some noble Lords will remember the lurid and mendacious material that was “hosted”—in the pretty vocabulary that is used—online on websites run from Macedonian villages which were provided with particularly provocative and damning content during Mr Trump’s election campaign. Digital content can be algorithmically distributed without any indication of provenance and without any means of complaint, redress or correction over any distance and at very low cost compared with traditional advertising. The present situation makes a mockery of our tight regulation of party political expenditure on elections. The committee of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, might want to look at this one.
The second example concerns the debate about publishers and platforms. It is an important debate and we can all see why those who run online platforms are not always in a good position to exercise the responsibility of publishers. That is, as it were, their get-out card. However, what they are doing is hosting a large amount of anonymously posted content, resulting in irresponsibility at two levels: at the level of the platform and at the level of the individual who posts content. Is this acceptable? Well, people always invoke the argument of free speech, which we should take seriously. There may be a good case for protecting anonymous postings on matters of public interest under repressive regimes. That is a much-cited special case, but it is just that: a special case. There is no generic case for exempting from accountability those who post content anonymously or for protecting them if they damage, defame or discredit others, reveal personal information and the rest of it.
I think that democracy will fail if we find that when we talk about public affairs, what is going on is the equivalent of hiding behind hedges in order to throw stones more effectively. There is perhaps a case for holding online platforms responsible in the way that publishers are responsible, if not for all the content they carry then at least for any content posted without a verifiable indication of its source. That verifiable indication would mean that the individual carried liability, which would be better than the present situation.
The third example is that of monopoly providers, about which others have spoken. This is a serious issue because these are enormous companies and, given that they are digital intermediaries, they can shift jurisdictions very quickly. This has wide and deep effects on public culture. We need to think very hard about anti-monopoly provisions in this area.